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Action–Renounced and Performed

Part 42 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Duality and differentiation are the bedrock of relativity and delusion, and human beings desperately cling to them to preserve their beloved illusions and maintain their false independence from Spirit–a condition that produces nothing but suffering, yet is desperately held on to. Why is this? Because the Self has been pushed out of the way by the ego which has taken control. By keeping our consciousness in duality and differentiation the ego perpetuates its power–even its very existence, for the consciousness of Oneness that is the truth will dissolve the ego. So although I have said that “we” cling to delusion, it is the ego that is holding on “for dear life”–not us. Only when we break that hold will we truly begin to live.

Even as we progress in consciousness we find the habit of duality persisting, and we often drag it into our attempts at spiritual reasoning. More than once in the Gita Arjuna presents Krishna with an either/or question that mirrors this illusion. Krishna explains the truth of the matter, and in doing so reveals the error of the question itself. We have come to one of those points. Not without a hint of complaint and accusation:

Arjuna said: You praise renunciation of actions and again you praise karma yoga. Which one is the better of these two? Tell me definitely (5:1).

In other words: “Which one of these can I throw away?” In our intellectual laziness we demand a simplistic, streamlined outlook so we can avoid the effort of combining two seeming contradictions in order to find out the truth that lies between them–and includes them. We demand a false unity so we can perpetuate our false duality. Fortunately for Arjuna and us Krishna never concedes to this intellectual indolence (and cowardice), but reveals the whole picture, refusing to serve up to us the Truth Lite we crave. So:


The Holy Lord said: Renunciation of action and karma yoga both lead to the highest happiness; of the two, however, karma yoga is superior to renunciation of action (5:2).

Action is rightly renounced when we refrain from an action because it is negative, useless, or foolish. Action is also rightly renounced when we act, but in a calm and detached manner, wishing only to do the right and not demanding any particular result. This, of course, is the yoga of action, karma yoga. Both bring us freedom and are superior to merely not acting because we are unsure or afraid and merely want to avoid shame and pain, not taking into account the right or wrong of the situation. Such a motivation is centered fully in the ego, not the buddhi (intelligence).

The inner state

He is a constant renouncer of action who neither dislikes nor desires, who is indifferent to the pairs of opposites–truly he is easily freed from bondage (5:3).

He who neither hates nor desires is free from raga and dwesha–attraction and repulsion, both rooted in ego instead of understanding. When we see with the eye of the spirit rather than feel with the compulsions of egoism, we neither like nor dislike an action, though we do value the doing of our duty. In that perspective our detachment will not waver and we will not hesitate to do that which is right to do. This is the path to freedom.

In what follows in this chapter we must keep in mind that the simple term “yoga” always means karma yoga.

The way of the wise

“Sankhya and karma yoga are different,” the childish declare–not the wise. If one is practiced correctly, that person finds the fruit of both. The realization that is attained by the followers of Sankhya is also attained by the followers of karma yoga. Sankhya and karma yoga are one. He who perceives this truly perceives (5:4-5).

There is an amazing phenomenon that has existed in the world for ages beyond calculation. In all religions the teachings of great Masters and scriptures are praised and adulated–yet hardly ever really followed. These two verses are truly “honored only in the breach” in India where the vast majority insist that the way of knowledge is incompatible with the yoga of action. The Gita is chanted there daily by tens–if not hundreds–of thousands, yet its clear message is assiduously disregarded. As I have pointed out before, Adore the Messenger but Ignore the Message seems to be the motto of all religion.

Only the ignorant say that jnana is incompatible with karma. What about Shankara then? His many works seem to affirm this incompatibility. When Shankara speaks of karma he is referring to the karma khanda, the ritualistic part of the Vedic tradition, as well as of busyness with ego-inspired action. Krishna is speaking of the doing of right action in the right manner, right action being the duty, the swadharma of the individual. “Better is one’s swadharma, though deficient, than the swadharma of another well performed. Better is death in one’s own swadharma; the swadharma of another brings danger” (3:35). Without fulfilling that duty through right action, there can be no spiritual release for anyone.

Knowledge and action are one when action is the manifestation of knowledge. An individual may choose to view life more in the aspect of intellectual knowledge or in the aspect of duty and right action. The viewpoint may differ, but the actual living will be the same whichever view is chosen. That, too, is a matter of the natural condition of the aspirant’s mental energies, and is of no great consequence, for moksha (liberation) is the inevitable culmination.

The necessity of both

Indeed, renunciation is difficult to attain without karma yoga. The yoga-yoked sage quickly attains Brahman (5:6).

Sri Ramakrishna often said: “The mind is everything.” This is especially seen to be true in this part of the Gita. It is not action that is either the problem or the solution–it is the state of mind, including the attitude and the perspective, that determines whether an act is a hindrance or a help toward liberation. It is important for us to realize that Krishna is not advocating simple good behavior as a means to self-upliftment, but is intent on the psychological condition of the seeker as he engages in action. At all times the aspirant must strive to “see true” throughout daily life; then he can “live true.”

It is a great error to suppose that Krishna is presenting his teaching as a kind of “live right” lesson. Rather, he is speaking to “the yoga-yoked sage,” and to no one else, for the state of mind (bhava) he is advocating is impossible to attain by the non-yogi.

The prerequisites

Yoga-yoked, with the lower self purified, with the lower self subdued, whose senses are conquered, whose Self has become the Self of all beings–he is not tainted even when acting (5:7).

When I was reading through the catalog of university courses before my first semester, I was continually frustrated because all the courses that really interested me had a list of prerequisite courses that had to be taken first. And many of the prerequisites did not interest me! Now I am a bit more adult and realize the frequent need for prerequisites in all aspects of life, also. Childish people get an idea and think they need only jump in, thrash about, and they will achieve what they want. This almost never works. Krishna knows this, so he lists to Arjuna the things needed to really be a karma yogi. Mere aspiration accomplishes nothing of itself.

Yoga-yoked. The expression in the Sanskrit text is really yogayukta–“united with yoga,” one who is irrevocably, inseparably, engaged in the practice of karma yoga.

With the lower self purified. Good intentions are not enough. There has to be a change of heart and mind in the form of purification. The ordinary Sanskrit word for “pure” is shuddha, but the word used in this verse is vishuddha–supremely pure, totally pure. The intriguing thing is that karma yoga is the way to produce these prerequisites, and yet can only be practiced when they have already been developed. This is the mystery of karma yoga which is obviously itself supernatural.

With the lower self subdued. Not only the mind, but the body must be purified and mastered. Morality is of the essence, for karma yoga is not really a physical process, but a mental-spiritual procedure. Physical purity is also essential, especially in the matter of diet.

Whose senses are conquered. The senses must not just be controlled occasionally, they must be permanently mastered. This mastery will be relatively easy when the heart and body are made pure. Yet, mastery of the senses must not be assumed, for they have their own petty treacheries. The mind, body, and senses have long been in the complete control of the ego and thereby become oriented to its war against the Self and its revelation. To conquer them and enlist them on the side of right in the form of karma yoga is no easy or simple matter.

Whose self has become the Self of all beings. Brahman is the Self of all, including the individual Self. Therefore when we begin to experience the infinite and finite Selves, we begin to intuit the unity of all things in Spirit–and therefore our unity with all sentient beings.

Not tainted even when acting. When all these components are in place, karma yoga can take place, ensuring that the karma yogi shall not ever be touched by karmic reactions on any level.

The karma yogi’s perspective

How can we be capable of action that produces no effects on us? It seems impossible. But Krishna explains:

“I do not do anything;” thus thinks the steadfast knower of truth while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, speaking, releasing, and holding, opening and closing his eyes–convinced that it is the senses that move among the sense-objects (5:8-9).

Again and again we encounter the profound uniqueness of the Bhagavad Gita as a scripture, even when compared to the Upanishads which it greatly reflects. Here, too, we find wisdom that can be found nowhere outside the Gita. We are given a description of the continual experience-insight of the illumined individual.

The enlightened knows that any “happening” occurs only to the body, the senses, mind or intellect–that he is ever, and only, the unacting witness, the consciousness that perceives without acting in any manner whatsoever. In the Gita we find a clearly-drawn distinction between purusha and prakriti, between the conscious witness and the moving energies that are witnessed. Always the perfect karma yogi is in this state of experiential distinction–it is not a matter of intellectual conception, but of the living fact.

In the third chapter we have already found this summation: “In all situations actions are performed by the gunas of Prakriti; those with ego-deluded mind think: “I am the doer.” (3:27)

But he who knows the truth about the gunas and action thinks: “The gunas act in the gunas. Thinking thus, he is not attached” (3:28).


Next Krishna tells us that the enlightened live their life devotionally, saying:

Offering actions to Brahman, having abandoned attachment, he acts untainted by evil as a lotus leaf is not wetted by water (5:10).

This is important, first for its practical application, but it also frees us from the common idea that the life of the wise, of the jnani, is somehow antiseptic in character and devoid of involvement with God in a personal manner. In the Yoga Sutras it is stated that samadhi, the entry into superconsciousness, is the result of Ishwarapranidhana–offering the life to God, to Ishwara, the personal aspect of God. This is underscored by Krishna saying later on: “Those who are ever steadfast, who worship me, fixing their minds on me, endowed with supreme faith, I consider them to be the best versed in yoga” (12:2).

Not I–but them

Krishna puts it all together by simply saying in conclusion:

Karma yogis perform action only with the body, mind, intellect, or the senses, forsaking attachment, performing action for self-purification (5:11).

Self-knowledge is the key to karma yoga as well as its ultimate fruition.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Freedom (Moksha)

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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 Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

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

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