Arjuna asks Krishna whether the path of selfless action or renunciation is more effective at reaching the goal of nirvana. Arjuna says the path of action is better. Those who have renounced the world achieve knowledge, but the key to truly being free is seeing that knowledge and action are the same. Renunciation without coming to understand selfless action, or action with awareness as to its true purpose, is spiritually destructive.
Those who truly are enlightened act without thoughts of ego -- they do not think that they themselves are "doing" anything, but rather simply following the accordance of divine law. They have a unified consciousness, live in an enlightened body that always guides them towards the truth, and find God's purpose in every one of their actions.
Those who are truly divine have equal regard for all -- and see the same self in "an elephant, a cow, and a dog." These people are neither "elated by good fortune, nor depressed by bad," and live in constant joy. They do not look for peace in the sensual pleasures of the world, but rather in the "joy, rest, and light" that comes within themselves. These people see self-realization as their only goal, and make this quest the foundation for daily living.
Krishna goes on to talk about meditation as a key element in the path to selfless action. It is a crucial step in freeing oneself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects. Through meditation, one can conquer himself, and live in peace no matter the external surroundings, and find impartiality in even the most extreme circumstances.
One can find this great 'Self' through inner solitude, through meditation. Meditation is 'one-pointedness,' where the thoughts always must return to the center, to the breath, away from expectations and attachments to material possessions. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must select a clean spot, sit firmly on "a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass," and try to be still in his thoughts. If he holds his head, body, and neck in straight line, and keeps his eyes from wandering, it will enhance the process of meditation.
Those who eat too much or too little, sleep too much or too little, or are imbalanced in work and recreation will not find peace in meditation. But those who find balance and use meditation as their primary goal towards self-realization find "the state of union." Those who master meditation find that their mind is like an unwavering flame in a windless place -- never swerving from the eternal truth, and desiring nothing.
Meditation, says Krishna, frees one from all affliction. But Arjuna cannot understand how the turbulent mind can truly be under control. Krishna says that through regular practice and detachment will find peace -- though it requires immense self-control to continue the practice and slowly find the goal. Still, if one does not find yoga in his life, as long as he has spiritual wisdom as the goal, he will be reborn into a place that will foster his continuing search for spiritual wisdom -- even into a house where yoga is practiced. Meditation, above all things, including selfless action, is the key to finding peace.
In this chapter about renunciation, we see elements of other Eastern religions emerge and we begin to find the common path between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism -- namely the renunciation of ego. Krishna sees renunciation not as the act of giving up all material belongings -- or shunning work, the family, material possessions -- but rather as renouncing the "I, me, mine" which is the source of all sorrow. A person who commits truly selfless service sees himself not as the 'doer,' but rather a vessel for divine obligation. This is the fundamental tenet of Taoism, and Buddhism as well makes this 'lack of control' a key determinant for spiritual success.
A momentary detour to talk about the idea that a wise person sees the same self in "an elephant," or a "dog," or a "cow": it might strike one as strange to see such equality preached amongst beings, and then in the next chapter, the advocacy of meditation upon a 'deer skin.' The treatment of animals is an interesting element of all religions, but particularly in the East, where numerous texts seem at an odds between compassion and utilitarianism. A Buddhist, for instance, will likely be vegetarian, but if he attends a guest's dinner and is served meat, could easily eat it without guilt or complaint. Here, we wonder how one could slay an animal if Krishna is encouraging such parity of view, but more likely he believes in pure survival -- the same deer skin one uses for meditation would be the skin one puts around his or her back to keep warm from the cold.
The chapter on meditation is a welcome relief not only for the reader, but also for Arjuna, who seems a bit dizzy from all this preaching about enlightenment. One of the most wonderful elements of the Gita is Arjuna's character - for he asks the most basic, pragmatic questions, questions that we ourselves ask as we read the book. Here he's concerned with how one can possibly achieve such spiritual enlightenment in a practical way, leading Krishna to endorse meditation as a path towards finding selfless action and wisdom.
Krishna's description of meditation seems well in accordance with modern ideas of what meditation is -- namely the ability to sit still and find one-pointedness. The idea is to make one's mind an unwavering flame, so that no matter what comes up in the brain, no matter what thoughts come, they can easily be dismissed and the breath and center can be restored. At first, the flame will flicker, maybe even be blown out, but over time, it will steady, and soon not even the wind will be felt.
Arjuna wonders what happens if someone cannot achieve yoga in their lifetime, and Krishna links meditation back to the idea of samsara, the karmic cycle of rebirth and death. Krishna says that as long as a person is truly committed to achieving yoga, even if he dies before achieving it, he will be reborn into a situation that will help him complete his journey -- even so far as being part of a family that has meditation as its daily practice. What Krishna is saying is that the divine wishes for each person finish his karmic duty and find yoga. If one begins on the path, then the divine will help guide him towards his goal, even if it takes successive lifetimes to do it.