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Action–Divine and Human

Part 37 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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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

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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