Truth Amid Chaos – Bhagavad Gita Chapter 17

How do your innermost thoughts determine the quality of your life? How can you infuse your actions with enduring power to benefit yourself and others? This chapter of the Gita shows us the subtle shades of gray between Goodness, Passion, and Ignorance, in our actions, in order to bring positive energy into everything we do. It describes the sacred and sometimes invisible actions we can do to build strong virtue and harmony in our world.

The Gita is a precious resource to help us see beyond the limits of 3D physical life. Nature’s goal for us is ascension, freedom from death and rebirth, to permanent union with God. This has nothing to do with religion, but rather the universal laws of Science, Physics, Movement, and Energy. These laws of Nature never change. The Bhagavad Gita is 18 chapters of richly metaphoric verses in Sanskrit, the sacred language of the Gods. If we open ourselves to its deeper meaning, we suddenly see our modern issues in a new light. It describes how to be free and happy, how to use ascension techniques from thousands of years before Christ, in order to ascend to freedom from the limitations of physical life. With each successive chapter, the Gita concepts become more one-pointed and specific. Just enjoy and listen with an open mind, as you would hear a story…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, Gods ruled the Earth, and all learning took place in the form of stories and sacred verses, that people learned by heart and passed down with each generation. 

Today the warrior prince Arjuna and his brilliant charioteer the God Krishna, stand on a vast battlefield, between thousands of warriors on two sides determined to fight to the death. Arjuna and his brothers have suffered for decades. They offer sacrifices, make peace with the gods, and show charity to the other sides, but to no avail. The opposing army of his cousins, his teacher, and childhood friends, now insist on a selfish path that denies life to his people. Arjuna’s duty is now to conquer them all, but he is horrified at the picture before him, and refuses to fight. His best friend and chariot driver Krishna, tells him how to free his thoughts to become invincible in battle, uphold the family virtue, clear all the evil, and incur no Karma in killing them. Arjuna listens very carefully. He has made his offerings to the Gods, said his prayers, and finally accepts his destiny to fight the battle. This is the bloody war of the Mahabharata. After 18 days of vicious fighting he and his brothers win. They vanquish the enemy, although just a few are left standing. Ultimately at the end of thheir lives they ascend to the heavenly realms.

The Sanskrit word “Svabhaava” is a kind of essential reverence for life and for God that is sometimes translated as “Faith”. Svabhavva is said to come from our reservoir of past impressions, and can be increased or decreased with our actions and attitude. Some call it Mindfulness, “or Loving alertness”. Others call it the “Power of Love”. I like the term “Soul Awareness.” 

In his book “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Swami Yogananda described so many difficulties in his life. where he failed to meet the worldly expectations of his family, friends and schoolteachers, because he had a constant passion for union with Spirit, an overwhelming love for God that made everything else meaningless in comparison. Yet this quality led to huge miracles in his life that changed the entire world. In the end, everyone honored and respected him for cultivating this infinite love for God.  I suggest we call this quality “Soul Awareness.” 

We have already learned the three “gunas” or modes of physical existence are a foundation of the Gita. Let’s review what they are. Sattva is the guna of Goodness, connected to the realization of God. Sattva is closest to divinity, therefore, the most positive trait a person can have. However, even loving goodness can tend to bind you to the cycle of death and rebirth. So, everything must be observed in moderation and detachment. 

Rajas is the realm of passion, action with desire for its results. Rajas comes primarily out of desire, ego, and the sense of “I”, although is not consciously negative or evil. 

Tamas is darkness, heaviness, and ignorance. Rajas and Tamas are never positive as they pull a person away from God. Tamas is the lowest guna which encompasses dullness, apathy, inaction, ignorance, and negative actions like violence and chaos. Tamas is seen as an evil quality, such as purposeful ignorance, the intent to harm others, a rejection of God and lack of Soul Awareness.

People with the nature of Goodness pray to the highest gods. Those with the nature of Passion worship medium level demigods and demons. Those with the nature of Tamas or ignorance pray to dark spirits and ghosts. 

Krishna urges us to focus on the quality of goodness,  and to refrain from actions motivated by passion or ignorance. Over time this will purify our thoughts and prepare us to enjoy eternal essence. 

In this chapter, Krishna explains Soul Awareness or Svabhaava in relation to the most important actions we do, the foods we eat, and the frame of mind with which we live. This is also a question of cause and effect. Perhaps our lives are not only determined by our actions, but even more directly by our motivation, state of mind, our prayers and offerings to harmonize the universe around us. These are essential sacred actions that we must perform as embodied beings. It may come as a huge surprise and wake-up call, since these are not widely taught, performed or even considered important in modern times. Many of us go through every day without any thought about them. The four devotional actions are Charity, Sacrifice, Penance, and the Foods we eat. Let’s consider these.

Charity is an act of giving, to others, and sharing with unlimited loving kindness toward all beings. And with God. Charity in the highest mode of Goodness is a gift when we have no expectation of return, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person. Charity in the mode of passion is given with some expectation, grudgingly, or with a desire for results. Charity in the mode of ignorance is given with contempt, to someone unworthy, at a wrong place and time, or with intent to harm. Charity is a powerful energy, even if it is not recognized by others.

Sacrifice is an essential action to honor, revere, or make an offering to the Gods. Vedic texts call this “Yajna” and spell out established procedures that sometimes require a trained priest to perform. However, symbolically and spiritually every action we make as an offering to the Supreme God without desiring anything in return can be an act of sacrifice and worship. Sacrifice in the mode of Goodness follows the scriptural rules, with no expectation of reward. Sacrifice performed for selfish gain or material benefit is in the mode of passion. Sacrifice without Soul Awareness, against scriptural rules, without any mantras or donation is in the mode of ignorance. Sacrifice can be done in myriad ways, however in the modern world we often misunderstand or compartmentalize how it is expressed. 

Penance is an action we do when we atone for our actions that may have caused pain to others. Every action brings a mixture of results, and we cannot always know the full extent of results of our actions. Hence, penance, repenting, or doing austerities to purify ourselves and to repair any damage we’ve done is an important part of life. In Sanskrit this is called Prāyaścitta. The three types of Penance or austerities that come from  the body, mind, and speech. Krishna reminds us to do no harm to ourselves with over-extreme penance. Our atonement, confession, acknowledging errors, and asking for divine forgiveness can reduce the karmic consequences. Penance can be honest and true in the mode of goodness, or it can be selfish and half-hearted in the mode of Passion. Atonement can be fake and evil in the case of Ignorance. 

The Gita also defines three types of foods according to the three gunas. 

The highest foods in the mode of Saatva or goodness are fresh, juicy, and encourage vitality. They promote long life, pure virtue, strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. Foods in the mode of goodness or Sattva, are high in life force, nourishing, freshly cooked, and naturally have the best flavor. 

Foods in the mode of passion or Rajas are exciting to the senses. They foods can be salty, spicy, hot, sweet, pungent, dry, very bitter, or very sour. These foods are said to stimulate passion, desire, and ego sense of “I”. They’re fun to eat, but are might lead to discomfort, and disease.

The lowest type of food is in the mode of ignorance or Tamas. Krishna describes them as foods that have lost their essence, are leftover, stale, cooked on a previous day, impure, rotten, or unsuitable for offerings. They tend to be less flavorful, highly spiced, old or stale, overcooked, or heavily processed, heavy in meat and oil, deep-fried, or contaminated. Dried, packaged, canned, or genetically modified foods are considered low quality. The foods we eat have an important effect on our frame of mind. People who live in the mode of ignorance tend to reject Soul Awareness and God. Hence, their life force will be low, and their thoughts will not be happy. 

It’s interesting the Gita is very clear that our food choices and overall wellness depend on the energetic quality and freshness of the food. It doesn’t say anything about vegetarian or vegan or meat, which are prevalent distinctions we use today,

Krishna emphasizes that Soul Awareness and the Mental purification are not enough to lead a person to ascension. He says it is also essential to read and understand the scriptures. Now we are reading the Bhagavad Gita. There are myriad other scriptures in this and every true tradition. 

Lastly, Krishna gives the sacred mantra “Om Tat Sat”. These three words call on the Supreme soul. They are used in ritual prayers and offerings to indicate the Highest Absolute Truth. These symbolic syllables are used by Brāhmaṇa priests while chanting the Vedic hymns  during sacrifices to Supreme God.

As you listen to the verses of Chapter 17, I invite you to ponder these questions:

  1. What are the best foods to promote goodness, happiness, and health?
  2. What are the foods that stimulate passion, desire, and egotism?
  3. Describe the foods that foster ignorance, rejecting Soul Awareness and God?       
  4. What are 3 practical examples of Charity, Penance, and Sacrifice that you would like to use to cultivate inner Soul Awareness for a better life?
  5. What are your favorite quotes from this chapter to remember for life lessons? 
  6. What parallel events in the modern world illustrate these concepts?

Now let’s listen to the Verses of Chapter 17

Bhagavad Gita 17.1

Arjun said: O Krishna, what is the situation for those who disregard the principles of the scriptures, but still worship You with Faith and Soul Awareness? Are they in goodness, in passion or in ignorance?

Bhagavad Gita 17.2

The Supreme God said: Every human being is born with innate Soul Awareness, which can be in three modes: Goodness – Sattva, Passion – Rajas, or Ignorance – Tamas. Now hear about these.

Bhagavad Gita 17.3

The Soul Awareness of all humans conforms to the quality of their mind. All people possess Soul Awareness, and whatever is its quality, that is truly what they are.

Bhagavad Gita 17.4

Those in the mode of goodness worship the celestial gods. Those in the mode of passion worship the demons, which we call yakṣhas and rākṣhasas. Those in the mode of ignorance worship ghosts and wandering spirits of the dead.

Bhagavad Gita 17.5

Some people perform difficult austerities not recommended by the scriptures, which are instead motivated by hypocrisy and egotism.

Bhagavad Gita 17.6

Impelled by desire and attachment, they torment not only the health of their body, but also Me, who dwells within them as Supreme Soul. These senseless people are demonic.

Bhagavad Gita 17.7

Even foods that a person prefers are according to these three qualities of physical nature. The same choices are true for whatever sacrifice, penance, and charity they incline toward. Now hear of these distinctions from me.

Bhagavad Gita 17.8

Persons in the mode of goodness prefer foods that promote longevity, pure virtue, strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. Such foods are high in life force, juicy, succulent, nourishing, freshly cooked, and naturally flavorful.

Bhagavad Gita 17.9

Foods that are salty, spicy, very hot, pungent, dry, too bitter, and too sour, are loved by those in the mode of passion. Such foods will produce pain, distress, and disease.

Bhagavad Gita 17.10

Food that has lost its essence, is leftover, stale, cooked on a previous day, impure, putrid, toxic, over-processed, or unfit for sacrifice, is that which is consumed by those in the mode of ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita 17.11

Sacrifice that is performed according to duty and the scriptural rules, with firm conviction of the mind and no expectation of reward, is of the quality of goodness.

Bhagavad Gita 17.12

But sacrifice, performed for material benefit, or against the scriptures, without true generosity or sincerity is in the mode of passion, O best of the Bharatas

Bhagavad Gita 17.13

Sacrifice devoid of Soul Awareness and contrary to the injunctions of the scriptures, in which no food is offered, no mantras chanted, and no donation made, is to be considered in the mode of ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita 17.14

Austerity, or penance of the body is this: worship of the Supreme God, the Brahmanas, one’s spiritual teacher, and superiors like the father and mother. Other austerities of the body can be cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, and nonviolence.

Bhagavad Gita 17.15

Austerity of speech consists in speaking truthfully, beneficially and in avoiding speech that offends. One should also recite the Vedas regularly.

Bhagavad Gita 17.16

Austerities of the mind are serenity of thought, gentleness, self-control, silence, and purity of purpose.

Bhagavad Gita 17.17

This threefold austerity of body, mind, and speech, practiced by those ardent souls with selfless aim, only to please the Supreme, is of the nature of goodness.

Bhagavad Gita 17.18

Austerity performed ostentatiously to gain honor, respect, and reverence is in the mode of ego and passion. Its benefits are unstable and transitory.

Bhagavad Gita 17.19

Austerity or rituals performed by fools with confused ideas of self-torture, destruction, or harming others, is in the mode of ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita 17.20

Charity in the mode of goodness is that which is given to a worthy person at the proper time and place, without expectation of return.

Bhagavad Gita 17.21

But charity given reluctantly, or with the hope or expectation of a return or reward, is said to be in the mode of passion.

Bhagavad Gita 17.22

Charity, which is given at an improper place and time or to unworthy persons, without showing respect, or with contempt, or the desire to harm, is of the nature of ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita 17.23

From the beginning of creation, the three syllables: Om Tat Sat have been declared symbolic representations of the Supreme Absolute Truth. They were uttered by Brahmanas while chanting Vedic hymns and during sacrifices, for the satisfaction of the Supreme.

Bhagavad Gita 17.24

Therefore, when performing acts of sacrifice, offering charity, or penance, those chanting the Vedas always begin with the word “Om” according to Vedic injunctions.

Bhagavad Gita 17.25

One should perform sacrifice, penance, and charity with the word “Tat”. The purpose of this is to be free from material entanglement.


Bhagavad Gita 17.26

The word “Sat” means Absolute Truth and eternal life. O Arjun, it is also used to describe an auspicious action. Om Tat Sat.

Bhagavad Gita 17.27

These works of sacrifice, of penance and of charity, performed for Absolute Truth, are to please the Supreme Person, O son of Prtha.

Bhagavad Gita 17.28

O son of Pritha, whatever acts of sacrifice or penance done without Soul Awareness or Faith, are called as “Asat.”, meaning deluded, distorted, fake, mistaken, invalid and false. Regardless of the rituals performed, they are useless both in this world and the next.

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