Krishna, having referred to caste as the basis of intelligent human action, now begins to speak of divine action–that of both the individual and the cosmic Self:
Though I am the creator thereof, know me to be the eternal non-doer (4:13b).
The transcendent and the immanent
Both the Paramatman and the jivatman share the qualities of being simultaneously transcendent and immanent. This is a major insight, without which their seemingly contradictory manifestations and perceptions produce only confusion and contradiction. Religions throughout the ages have been torn by arguments about views considered contradictory that are in reality facets of a single truth. Even in India conflict is found regarding whether or not God has form or is formless, has qualities or is devoid of qualities, is personal or impersonal, is definable or indefinable, when God (Brahman) is all of these. But only those whose inner consciousness is opened can begin to comprehend this.
How is God beyond action? Since all things proceed from him, including their movement and change, can we really say he does not act? Even if his sole act is the emanation of the universe, that is no small deed. Evidently he is the non-doer in that no action can affect him in any degree or produce any kind of conditioning in him. Krishna now expounds on this.
Actions do not taint me
Actions do not taint me, nor is desire for action’s fruit in me. He who thus comprehends me is not bound by actions (4:14).
Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras: “Ishwara [God] is a particular Purusha [Spirit, Person] Who is untouched by the afflictions of life, actions, and the results and impressions produced by these actions” (Yoga Sutras 1:24). The key point here is that God is untouched–free from–any compulsion to act or the result of actions, both of which condition the finite individual. The laws of causation apply only to those intelligences who are moving within the plane of relative existence. It is necessary for them to be “touched” by action, otherwise they would not evolve beyond relativity. But this is never the case with the Transcendent who is in some incomprehensible way the untouched and inactive Source and Maintainer of all. When we think about this we can understand why philosophies such as Sankhya reject the idea of Brahman as a Cosmic Doer–Ishwara or Bhagavan. If, however, we realize that all relativity is but an appearance without actual substance, then, just as we momentarily appear to be humans but are not really so at any time, so Brahman is that Reality which appears to us as though it is Ishwara or Bhagavan. In the final analysis we realize that action does not affect God because action–in the way we understand or mistake it–is impossible for him. And also impossible for us!
Nor is desire for action’s fruit in me
To desire something is to imply a lack, deficiency or a defect in one’s self or one’s life. Since there is no lack, deficiency or defect in God, it is impossible for him to even desire–much less desire either to act or to produce an effect of action. This, too, is our situation. It is only our lesser being that can desire, act, and experience the consequences of action. God has no motive that could produce an action, either. A question such as “Why did/does God do…?” is simply absurd, and any answer we come up with is doubly absurd. A classic example is the question: Why did God make the world? and the even sillier answer: Because he was lonely. The answer, So he could share himself with others, is really inexcusable, because we are eternally a part of him and already partaking of his being. As I say, any answer is foolish. No wonder the wise are so often silent.
Krishna has already spoken of Prakriti, the creative energy by and through which all things are done. It is Prakriti that evolves, both in its cosmic and its individual states. So, then, is Prakriti a “thing” separate from God that somehow does his “will”? No; rather, Prakriti is the creative dreaming faculty of God. Just as we dream our many incarnations, so God dreams the many cycles of creation. God, however, controls his dreams, whereas we do not until we master our dream through the practice of yoga. Then we, too, will no longer have desire for the fruits of action, for we will know that there are no actions–only dreams.
Those who understand the foregoing facts can only be the master of their activity, never its slave. Because, after all, it is only a concept, a mirage–necessary, but not ultimately real.
The practical application
Knowing thus, the ancient seekers for liberation performed action. Do you, therefore, perform action as did the ancients in earlier times (4:15).
In prehistory there were no such things as mirrors. To see themselves, people had to look into water. Some, leaning over to see themselves reflected on the water’s surface, fell into the water and drowned. In the same way nearly all sentient beings fall into the mirage of relative existence by identifying with it and forgetting their transcendental reality. Thus they drown in their finite life, suffocating and floundering, yet without being released from it until after incalculable ages they find the way back onto the shore of their true Self. Until then any hope of peace and freedom from pain is tormenting and tantalizing, as delusive as the rest of their experience.
Action, then, is dangerous, a looking into the pool of samsara. In old Greek mythology the youth Hylas looked into a pool inhabited by water spirits who reached up and pulled him into the water and drowned him so they could keep him with them always. In keeping with the rationalizing and delusive nature of the human mind, it was reported that he had chosen to go into the water. Well, if he did, he was still just as drowned and dead as if he had not made that choice.
Since this is our situation, Krishna speaks of how “the ancient seekers for liberation performed action.” For we, who also seek liberation, must know how to do the same, performing action “as did the ancients in earlier times.”
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Mystery of Action and Inaction